Travel to Ethiopia for an Orthodox Christmas experience

by Jun 29, 2017Africa

Stone church in Ethiopia

Cheryl K. traveled to Ethiopia to see how Ethiopians celebrate Orthodox Christmas, called Genna, “Timkat,” the baptism of Jesus. She discovered bull jumping, stone churches, baboons and Ethiopian culture.

Cheryl K. of New York chose this particular trip in December 2016 to travel to Ethiopia to see how Ethiopians celebrate Orthodox Christmas, which is called Genna, and “Timkat,” which is the baptism of Jesus. She has traveled the world for four decades and finds herself fascinated by the world’s religions, thus this trip from Journeys International specifically geared to Genna and the “Timkat” Festival, among several others by Journeys that include a different emphasis in Ethiopia. She shares her experiences from the trip with HI Travel Tales:

Getting to know Ethiopia

Ethiopia remains a growing country in Africa. There is lots of foreign investment in building railways, roads, hydroelectric power plants, green houses, slaughterhouse/meat packing factories, apartments, condos and more. Every place we went, you saw buildings or infrastructure work going on. The Chinese are the biggest investors along with the Dutch and Italians.

As background, I learned that “ethiopic” means “burnt faced” in ancient Greek and was used to describe the dark-skinned people of sub-Saharan Africa. Dark skins are for good reason: Ethiopia bills itself as 13 months of sunshine — because it has a 13-month calendar and lots of sun. There are 12 months with 30 days each, and the 13th month has 5 days in it (or six during a leap year). Although I arrived on December 31, when we celebrate New Year’s Eve, it was not Ethiopian New Year, which is September 11. As the rest of the world was welcoming in 2017, Ethiopia had welcomed in 2009 in September, so I was 8 years younger in Ethiopia than in the United States! While the rest of world dropped the Julian calendar in 1582, Ethiopia still follows it. Over 70 languages are spoken in Ethiopia. The Amharic language is spoken in the northern part of the country and is the official language of Ethiopia. The Oromiffa language is spoken throughout southern Ethiopia. And most Ethiopians that have attended high school speak some English.

Castle at Gondar in Ethiopia.

Castle at Gondar – Photo by Journeys International

Experiencing Orthodox Christmas in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christmas is called Genna and takes place on January 7 in Lalibela. But the tradition starts 40 days prior when the faithful fast from all dairy products (both milk, as well as meat). An estimated 50,000 pilgrims from all over Ethiopia travel to Lalibela to celebrate Genna. Some walk for miles and others come by bus, and they start arriving five days before Christmas.

Members of the local Lalibela churches cook and provide food to these pilgrims who sleep on the ground at the churches until Christmas arrives. During Christmas Eve, the pilgrims visit the churches and pray. In some of the churches, priests give sermons to the faithful about the birth of Jesus. Prayers are said throughout the night, and a mass is held with communion distributed to everyone. Around 6:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, the priests and deacons from the Lalibela churches line up on the rock-hewn wall surrounding the church of St. Mary. They are dressed in beautiful vestments and wear different styles of headdress. Led by a drum, they slowly shift their weight from one side to the other. They hold a metal sistrum in their right hand and a prayer stick in their left hand. As they chant about the birth of Jesus, they shake the sistrum. They will slowly move around the entire wall of the courtyard, and this chanting and procession goes on for hours.

After the chanting, people go home to slaughter an animal (chicken, cow, goat or sheep). The men always slaughter the animal, and the women prepare the meal to end their 40-day fast. Ethiopians spend time with family and friends on Christmas day. The Christmas tree has entered the Ethiopian culture, albeit more as a novelty, and we saw lots of artificial trees for sale in the stores and markets before Christmas.

Orthodox churches all over Ethiopia

The northern part of the country has numerous Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Ethiopia is home to a 1,700-year-old Christian civilization. It claims it is the second Jerusalem, and the country’s royals descended from Israel’s King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The ancient capital city of Axum (also commonly spelled Aksum) is believed to be the home of the original Ark of the Covenant that was originally in Israel, and is said to contain Moses’s tablets. The Ark is contained in a secure building on the compound of the Cathedral of St. Mary Zion.

St George Church in Lalibela

St. George Church in Lalibela – Photo by Cheryl K.

Although all the Orthodox churches are beautiful, the most unique are found in Lalibela, where 13 churches and chapels are hewn out of single solid pieces of rock and are over 800 years old. They are carved below ground and are ringed by trenches and courtyards. The tallest is nearly 40-feet high. They are connected to each other by a maze of tunnels and passages. One long, dark, hot, 165-foot tunnel we passed through is called “hell.” People sang and prayed as they make their way through it until they reached the end and saw the outdoor light where their songs and noises turn into symbolic sounds of happiness and joy. These churches are often cited as an unofficial eighth wonder of the world. Each church has its own style and is dedicated to a particular saint. One of the most famous rock hewn church is St. George’s, which has a cross carved on top of its roof.

Travel to Ethiopia to see baboons, tribes and culture

I also traveled to the Simien Mountains in the northern part of the country to see the Gelada baboons and the Walia Ibex. We spent a couple hours walking and sitting among over 100 baboons. The Gelada are the only grass-eating baboons on earth. They pull hands full of grass and eat it. As we sat among them, you heard non-stop grass pulling and chewing. The babies were typical kids chasing each other, playing in trees, rolling around on the ground or riding on the back of his or her Mother. One dominant male mates with all the females in the troop until he is challenged and overpowered by another male. Once he loses the fight to another male, the females ignore him completely. He can stay with the troop, but his role is relegated to caring for the young members of his troop.

Travel to Ethiopia to see Gelada Baboons.

Gelada baboon — photo by Journeys International

In the Rift Valley and the Southern Omo Valley, we visited and learned about the Haleva, Mursi, Ari, Konso, Desanech, Karo, Sedama, Hamar, Benna, Tsemi and Dorze tribes. All the tribes have their own language and schools. Some of the tribes like the Hamar, Mursi, Karo and Desanech wear very little clothing. The Karo paint their bodies. And many of the tribes do not get along with each other. The disagreements are over livestock or land, so every man you see walking in the bush or even around camp carries a Kalashnikov rifle or AK-47 and some have belts of bullets wrapped around their waists. These weapons come from countries like Somalia in exchange for livestock. Men in the tribes who kill an animal or a member of another tribe wear a special hairstyle for the rest of their lives and are viewed as heroes by their tribal members.

Fishermen on abandoned tank near Gondar.

Photo by Journeys International

Hamar bull jumping and whipping ceremony in Ethiopia

I was lucky and was able to attend a Hamar bull jumping ceremony. When a boy reaches his 20s, he decides when he wants to transition to a man and marry. Thirty days before he decides to jump the bulls (i.e. symbolizing his transition to a man), he ties 30 knots in a rope. Each day he unties a knot until the day of the jump finally arrives. The celebration starts with the initiate’s friends whipping his sisters and female cousins with a wood switch. The girls tie metal bells around their ankles and below their knees, and they have metal horns they blow.

The girls taunt and insult the boys to make them whip them. The girls do this to bring good luck to the initiate for a successful bull jump. The girls we saw had huge bloody gashes across their backs from the switch hitting and cutting them. The girls march around and jump up and down while chanting, and the sound from the bells on their legs and the horns blown is deafening. After the whipping, the girls put ash in the gashes to leave large scars on their back.

Bull jumping ceremony as girls get whipped.

Photo by Cheryl K.

When it comes time for the actual bull jumping ceremony attended by family and friends, men of the tribe line the bulls up in a row. One man holds the bull by its horns while another holds the bull by its tail. The initiate must jump a minimum of six bulls four times to be successful and pass into manhood. If he is unsuccessful, he must wait a full year before he can try again. When the initiate does the actual bull jump, he is completely naked except for some cowrie shells he wears around his neck. He takes a running jump from the ground and runs over each bull’s back. The initiate we saw successfully ran over the six bulls four times and entered into manhood. After the jump, the initiate goes back to his compound to feast with his family and guests.

With a successful jump, the initiate can now select a girl to be his first wife. Once he selects a girl, he and his family must negotiate with her parents on how many goats or cattle he must give her family. This negotiation process could take anywhere from weeks to months before a final agreement is reached. Once everyone agrees and the animals are given to the girl’s family, the two can then get married. Coming from a polygamist society, Hamar men could have up to four wives, but the man must negotiate with each wife’s family on the number of goats and cattle they want for her, so most men only have two wives because they cannot afford to give up most their livestock. The first Hamar wife wears a thick leather necklace that is placed around her neck and clamped on. The second wife gets two thick silver necklaces. If a man did have any additional wives, they do not receive any necklaces.

Visiting a Hamar hut and village in Ethiopia

We visited a Hamar hut that a widow lived in. From the ground to the ceiling there is only about a 4-foot clearance, so adults can never stand upright in the hut. This hut was made of sticks and ropes made from trees. There were animal skins covering the dirt floor in the hut we visited. The woman cooked and slept in the hut. When we visited, she was sewing a skirt made of goatskins.

Mursi women of Ethiopia

Mursi women – Photo by Cheryl K.

All the tribes and nearly everyone in the countryside must walk down to a river everyday for water for themselves and their livestock. The government has dug some wells but not enough to supply all the people and their livestock in the valleys. The people and livestock my need to walk up to 10 miles one way to get water each day. The South Omo Valley was in a drought during my visit so the riverbed and most water holes we saw were completely dry, and the cattle were very thin. Grass was limited due to the lack of rain, so herds are walked for miles to find grass for grazing. Some tribes are nomadic and keep moving to where they can find grass and water for their livestock. You could clearly see the hardship on the people and their livestock from the drought.

Timkat celebration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The final highlight of my trip was attending Timkat in Addis Ababa the capital city of Ethiopia. Timkat, a three-day celebration, marks the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. On the eve of Timkat, members from the country’s Orthodox churches do a procession from their church to an open field designated for the Timkat festival. Ethiopia is the only country that does an outdoor service and baptism to celebrate both Epiphany and the Lord’s Baptism. Starting at noon on the first day of the celebration, prayers are said inside each church in the Holy of Holies Sanctuary. Each church in Ethiopia has a copy of the Ark of the Covenant containing copies of tablets with the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are written in Geez, a language only priests and deacons are taught to read. After about three hours of praying, the tablets, which are covered, are brought out of the church on the heads of priests and umbrellas are held over the priests.

Girls, boys and adult choirs lead each church’s procession singing and chanting traditional or modern songs talking about the baptism and forgiveness of sins. Men have a separate choir from the women. Even in the churches, men go in and sit in one area of the church while women use another entrance and section of the church. When Ethiopians go to church, they always wear white gabi scarves so every Sunday, as well as on Genna and Timkat, we saw a sea of people clothed in white. The church members may walk up to 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) to get from their church to the Timkat festival. Carpets are rolled out and picked up along the way for the church members to walk on, and church members with brooms walk ahead once the carpet is unrolled and sweep it with brooms before the choir, deacons and priests walk on it. The deacons wear beautiful vestments and the priests carrying the tablets on their head wear velvet vestments. Once the church group gets to the Timkat grounds, the tablets are placed in a large tent where priests will stay with them and pray until the conclusion of Timkat.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas ceremony.

Photo by Journeys International

Timkat is always on January 19. At 7 a.m. the Patriarch of Ethiopia arrives at the Timkat grounds along with several high-ranking bishops and guests. When I was there, the Patriarch from Egypt was in attendance along with two representatives from the Vatican and a representative from the U.S. Diplomatic office. Before the Patriarch arrives, a priest preaches to the crowd, and once the Patriarch and other church officials arrive, they go into a fenced garden that contains a large pool and a gold statue of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Priests and Deacons line up on two sides of the pool across from each other. Initially, the priests and deacons on one side of the pool sing, and then the priests and bishops on the other side sing. The Patriarch and several Bishops read from the gospels about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Afterward, the Patriarch and two Bishops move around the pool three times saying prayers. At the completion of the prayers, the three men place the crosses they were carrying into the pool of water to bless it. Once the water is blessed, the Patriarch moves to the area where the statue is located, picks up a garden hose and sprays everyone in the courtyard to bless them. Only priests, deacons, journalists and a limited number of tourists with special badges are allowed in this area, where I also had the privilege to be. The Patriarch walked so close to me, I could have reached out and touched him several times.

Once the Patriarch blesses everyone in the garden area, all of the faithful who are waiting outside the garden area are sprayed by deacons holding hoses as a big as fire hoses. The people raise their arms and run to the water to be blessed. They are completely soaked and joyful. As far as the eye could see, there are people, with our guide and some of the journalists estimating the crowd to be around 200,000 people. The deacons continue to spray the hoses and bless the people all day long. People who don’t attend the service continue to arrive all day to be blessed. On the third day of the Timkat Festival in Addis Abba, the tablets from the church of St. Michael are moved in a procession back to their church because that is the feast day for St. Michael in the Orthodox Church.

Of all the things I witnessed, the strong belief, devotion and jubilation of the people both at Genna and Timkat were wonderful. It was a pleasure to be a part of it and to experience it, and every experience and adventure completely fulfilled – even exceeded — my dreams of travel to Ethiopia.

Cheryl K of New York best describes her decades of travel (all seven continents and 86 countries) in her own words: “I find it fascinating to learn the differences and similarities between my Roman Catholic religion and Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Cao Dai, etc. That is part of my desire to travel the world. Some people are purely black and white and have no tolerance to learn about or experience other religions. When I returned home from Bhutan last October, I was shocked to hear a friend say ‘Oh, that is where they have a bad religion.’ I am fascinated by other cultures, and I try to learn as much as I can about them. I love trips where you get immersed with the people and don’t just see and do ‘tourist’ things. 

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